At around 10 p.m. Thursday evening, Tristan Riley left Elmer’s Texas Barbeque for the day, fully expecting to come back to the kitchen the next day at 10 a.m. to work.
At about 1 a.m. Friday morning, another cook, Isaiah Hedstrom drove by his place of employment, not knowing this would be the last time he’d see the building intact.
By 2:37 a.m., owner Rodger Heaton would be calling in an emergency: Elmer’s had caught fire.
By mid-morning, both Riley and Hedstrom arrived at a still smoldering restaurant.
The exact cause of the fire that engulfed the building is still under investigation by the Minnesota State Fire Marshal, but what is apparent is that the main Elmer’s Texas Barbeque building was completely destroyed. The pavilion where popular melodrama theater shows have taken place for the past few summers was left untouched, its stage and whimsical structures creating an unsettling contrast to the devastation beheld in front of it.
According to authorities, Heaton, who lives in the basement of Elmer’s, was awoken at approximately 2:35 a.m. by a loud noise. Heaton saw smoke all around and exited the building.
The Battle Lake Fire Department was called in.
“When we arrived, the flames were through the roof,” Battle Lake Fire Chief Derek Tysdal said.
The Henning and Ottertail fire departments assisted and the fire was under control in about three hours, according to Tysdal. He added that everyone got out of the building and no firefighters were injured. Tysdal and several other firefighters were still at Elmer’s at mid-morning to keep an eye on the embers and put out any flare-ups.
Vehicles, bikes and golf carts came and went from the parking lot, all having convened to see the aftermath for themselves. There was a sense of disbelief over this loss to the community. People somberly walked around the ruins, took it all in, and left as silently as they had come.
“My friend called me this morning, like, ‘are you dead?’” Riley said. “I was like ‘why would you say that?’ I hadn’t heard anything. I thought he was kidding. I didn’t believe it until I got here.”
Riley had worked at the seasonal establishment for eight or nine years. Now, he’s not quite sure where to go from here.
“We only had to make it another month,” Riley said of the seasonal establishment, which usually closes for the season in October.
“It’s shock, surprise,” Hedstrom said of taking in the reality for himself.
Riley and Hedstrom estimated there to be between 15 and 20 employees at Elmer’s whose futures are now uncertain because of the fire.
“It looks like it started in the smoke room,” Hedstrom said.
Riley agreed, adding that it’s an old building, so he wouldn’t be surprised if it was just a little spark that got it going and engulfed the whole building quickly.
“It’s been around so long and there’s fires going on in there 24/7,” Riley said.
Both Riley and Hedstrom received an email while walking around the ruins from Heaton, confirming what they already knew: Elmer’s was gone.
With the investigation still underway, more details are to come within the following weeks.